'Urban' is bigger than it appears
A "new analytic framework" by the Urban Land Institute ignores walkability and sets back our understanding of cities and suburbs.
ROBERT STEUTEVILLE DEC. 14, 2016The author of this article is concerned that this report sets back our understanding of urban places and ignores important factors in real estate today. Here are five areas where ULI misses the mark.
Walkability is ignored
Walkability is nowhere taken into account in this report's complicated sorting of urbanism. Whether deliberate or not, this is a head-scratching oversight. Walkability is central to what defines urban neighborhoods and it may be the most important factor, from a market point of view, in real estate today.
Construction for automotive travel has defined conventional suburban development for more than six decades, and a desire of walkability is driving a resurgence in mixed-use neighborhoodsWalkability is not a 'luxury good'
. . . Walkability is not a luxury good, but one that is vital to health, safety, and welfare. An analytic framework that ignores walkability is a step backward.. .
Single-family houses do not equal suburbs
Beyond relative density, the key factor distinguishing "urban" from "suburban" is the presence or lack of single-family homes, according to ULI. High-density tracts with less than 10 percent single-family detached were classified as urban. Medium-density tracts with more than 30 percent single-family detached were classified as suburban.
Yet nearly two-thirds of America's densest, most historic, most urban cities exceed the 30 percent standard for single-family detached housing . . .
Miles from the principal downtown does not determine urbanism
Distance from a city center is also used in this report as a criteria to determine what is urban. This is a mistake, because it has little to do with urban character. A walkable, mixed-use, diverse neighborhood is urban in character. Such a neighborhood could be next to downtown or 10 miles away. Many suburbs have such neighborhoods and they are decidedly urban. ULI obscures this important factor by failing to take walkability into account and instead looking at how far a neighborhood is from the downtown's tallest buildings.
Too little attention is paid to recent trends
The last decade and a half includes two distinct real-estate eras: The run-up to the cataclysmic housing crash, and the years since the crash. The crash changed the real estate industry: Walkable urban places have seen a larger share of development some 2008. ULI plays down that shift by looking at a 15-year period that is approximately half pre-crash and half post-crash. Says ULI: From 2000 to 2015, suburban areas accounted for 91 percent of population growth and 84 percent of household growth in the top 50 metro areas.
Here's what economist Joe Cortright at Urban Observatory had to say: "The ULI report treats the entire period 2000 to 2015 as if it were a single phase or cycle. But for anyone who has been paying attention to housing markets, or indeed, the overall economy, this period is really breaks down into two very different cycles. The first, from 2000 to about 2007, corresponded to the expansion of the housing bubble, which resulted chiefly in the construction of lots of suburban and exurban single family homes. The second half, from 2008 through 2015, corresponds to the Great Recession and the slow recovery, a period during which single family, suburban housing has languished, and nearly all of the action in housing markets has been in multi-family units, and chiefly apartments in urban locations. Conflating those two distinct periods overstates the growth of suburbs and understates the rebound in cities."
ULI's "new analytic framework" ignores the work that New Urbanism has done over the last 30 years educating the public about walkable neighborhoods and how they differ from conventional suburban development. Walkable neighborhoods can be found inside and outside of principal cities. They are a key factor determining what is "sub"—i.e. less than—urban, and what is fully urban.
The report shrinks urban territory and mislabels some of it "suburban." For fans of diverse urban places, this is a problem. Urbanism is about more than density and multifamily housing. In the real world—suburban places are becoming more urban, not the reverse. The urbanism trend is larger than it would appear in the ULI report.
In the preface, ULI shows an understanding that walkability is a key factor as it cites "a variety of city and suburban housing options. Some … reflect preferences among a growing [emphasis mine] number of Americans for denser, more walkable communities. Others will serve a strong continuing demand for new single-family homes in more conventional automobile-oriented areas … ." I hope ULI examines that issue more closely in future reports.
In the meantime, let's keep our eyes on the ball: Urbanism is about many things including walkability, placemaking, diversity, mixed-use, and multimodal access. Developers—members of ULI—would do well to focus on these factors.
City Observatory further critiques the ULI report in a blog title "Are the 'burbs really back?"
Here's a link to ULI's online Atlas of the 50 metro areas studies in the report.